The Berkshire Opera Festival carries on this year with their second production, a radically different work written only a few years later by Richard Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos. Brian and Jonathon very kindly agreed to chat about this year’s offering with me, and I think you will learn a lot about Ariadne and how it looks to the people who put it on the stage for your enjoyment. Opera is in one way entertainment and in another a great deal more, and no other opera brings this home to us more amusingly, delectably, and movingly than Ariadne.
Though one hundred years old and a comedy set in 1740’s Vienna, Der Rosenkavalier is still fresh. This is partly because the opera is timeless because, as Robert Gibson and Andrew Riemer’s interesting program notes point out, it is an anachronistic mixture of different bits of Viennese cultural. For instance one can nitpick the fact the romantic waltzes Richard Strauss incorporated into the opera’s music and plot wouldn’t exist until the 19th Century (they were barely dancing l’Allemande with linked hands in the mid 18th Century). Thus the opera is about as logical and historically accurate as a myth is — it is a rich Dobos torte (whose recipe Dobos donated to the Budapest Pastry and Honey-bread Makers’ Guild five years before the opera’s première, for what it’s worth) of many integrated layers, some chocolate, some nutty, some sugary, and some disturbing, ashy and mawkish. Present also is something of Sigmund Freud’s contemporaneous Vienna, not just in the way we see how his patients’ inherited neuroses manifested themselves some generations prior, but also as psychology as one of the last frontiers of the enlightenment. The famous final duet is to be sung “träumerisch”: the young hero Octavian sings “Ist ein Traum…” just as the “secret of his dream is revealed” (see photo of tablet below). He wakes up from the intense love affair with the Marschallin and realises the true nature of his feelings. This happens only after he has convinced his rival the Baron Ochs of his insanity by simulating hallucinations in a kind of upside down abreaction in the form of a Viennese masked ball. Octavian awakens to the realisation that his love for the Marschallin is “mere” warm friendship and discovers true love for the young Sophie who is fresh from the convent. He had refused to face the dawn in Act I, but by Act III he comes to act on the dreams, or at least the strange events, of the intervening scenes in which he undergoes two transformations to the opposite sex, encounters a symbolic silver rose, tries to duel Ochs and sets up said masked ball, before fixing his and Sophie’s lives. Octavian, knightly and hot headed though he is, has a manly grace. He forsakes brute force in the end to find a third alternative to his problems, which should be relevant today when the beastly Baron Ochs’ style of greed of is often valued over character, civility and proper thinking. Or at least relevant to those who more reasonably mistake romantic love for friendship or believe one necessarily precludes the other for all time.
Strauss was never more the musical conjurer than he was in Ariadne auf Naxos. With an ensemble of thirty-seven instruments, including harmonium, celesta, piano, harps and percussion, a shimmering and transparent opera emerges and asserts its lean clarity against a perceived Wagnerian monumentalism. Even when Strauss wants his cake after eating it, and strives for a Tristan-like blossom in the second half (the one and only “Act” of this work, the first half being a Prologue), one cannot fault the ensemble for sounding a bit threadbare in its overreaching to the Bayreuth master. After all, this textural contrast of light and heavy is all in line with the clever libretto of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, which is an ironic comment on Love the Ideal and what we know as reality in our all-too-human relationships.